Reckless: The Racehorse Who Became a Marine Corps Hero [NOOK Book]

Overview

From the New York Times bestselling coauthor of The Heart of Everything That Is, comes the unlikely story of a racehorse who truly became a war hero, beloved by the Marine Corps and decorated for bravery.
 
Her Korean name was Ah-Chim-Hai—Flame-of-the-Morning. A four-year-old chestnut-colored Mongolian racehorse, she once amazed the crowds in Seoul with her remarkable speed. But when war shut down the tracks, the star racer was ...
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Reckless: The Racehorse Who Became a Marine Corps Hero

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Overview

From the New York Times bestselling coauthor of The Heart of Everything That Is, comes the unlikely story of a racehorse who truly became a war hero, beloved by the Marine Corps and decorated for bravery.
 
Her Korean name was Ah-Chim-Hai—Flame-of-the-Morning. A four-year-old chestnut-colored Mongolian racehorse, she once amazed the crowds in Seoul with her remarkable speed. But when war shut down the tracks, the star racer was sold to an American Marine and trained to carry heavy loads of artillery shells across steep hills under a barrage of bullets and bombs. The Marines renamed her Reckless.
 
Reckless soon proved fearless under fire, boldly marching alone through the fiery gauntlet, exposed to explosions and shrapnel. On some of her uphill treks, Reckless shielded human reinforcements. The Chinese, soon discovering the bravery of this magnificent animal, made a special effort to kill her. But Reckless never slowed. As months passed, the men came to appreciate her not just as a horse but as a fellow Marine.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A wonderful and inspiring combination of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit and Unbroken.” —Nelson DeMille

“Clavin introduces us to the unlikeliest hero of all…an inspiring tale of courage and endurance.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Larry Alexander
 
“Dramatic and poignant…and comes completely alive in Tom Clavin’s narrative.”—New York Times Bestselling Author S. C. Gwynne 

Kirkus Reviews
2014-06-01
More than six decades ago, American Marines fought to hold a hill in Korea. They had significant help from a singular horse.Clavin (The DiMaggios: Three Brothers, Their Passion for Baseball, Their Pursuit of the American Dream, 2013, etc.) graphically details war on an individual level. Within the relentless account of the bravery of many men, the featured character is a Mongolian racehorse, recruited to carry the heavy ammunition for a recoilless rifle platoon. Named “Reckless,” like the troop’s appellation for their primary weapon, the horse was bought from its Korean owner by the platoon’s lieutenant. The pretty little filly with the white blaze and three white socks appeared to have, according to Clavin, human attributes beyond a fondness for beer. “Iron willed,” she “never shirked or complained” though she seemed to have “a sense of entitlement” as well as a “sense of humor.” Reckless certainly possessed fortitude; what she did one day in 1953 was remarkable.Under heavy enemy fire, she made countless trips up steep terrain carrying heavy shells to supply her platoon. On the way back, she often carried the wounded to safety. It was estimated that she carried more than four tons of ammunition in trips covering more than 30 miles, mostly alone, without guidance or prompting.The fame of the stalwart horse, who gave added resonance to the idea of Semper Fi, grew both within the Corps and among the folks at home. Reckless made sergeant and received several decorations. Despite his research, Clavin’s dramatic tale of the leatherneck steed doesn’t necessarily eschew imaginative elaboration, particularly in regard to her back story. “Readers should keep in mind,” he warns in an endnote, “that what makes for a heck of a story can be highly speculative.”For military buffs, a blood-soaked war story about a courageous horse.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780698137202
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/5/2014
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 167,639
  • File size: 10 MB

Meet the Author

Tom Clavin

Tom Clavin’s books include the national bestselling titles Halsey’s Typhoon, The Last Stand of Fox Company, Last Men Out, and The Heart of Everything That Is (all written with Bob Drury); as well as sports titles Roger Maris, Gil Hodges (both written with Danny Peary), and The DiMaggios. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Men’s Journal, Reader’s Digest, Smithsonian Magazine, and Parade. He resides in Sag Harbor, New York.
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Read an Excerpt

NAL Caliber

Title page

Copyright page

Dedication

PROLOGUE: August 1952

PART I

CHAPTER ONE: Lots of Guts, Little Glory

CHAPTER TWO: “Everyone Is Shook”

CHAPTER THREE: Flame-of-the-Morning

CHAPTER FOUR: Holding the Hook

CHAPTER FIVE: The River Crossing

CHAPTER SIX: Return to Seoul

CHAPTER SEVEN: The Empty Stall

PART II

CHAPTER EIGHT: A Four-Legged Female Marine?

CHAPTER NINE: Yak Yak Town

CHAPTER TEN: Baptism by Fire

CHAPTER ELEVEN: A Korean “Clambake”

CHAPTER TWELVE: Guarding the Door

CHAPTER THIRTEEN: “We’ll Give ’Em Hell Anyway”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN: “Hold at All Costs”

PART III

CHAPTER FIFTEEN: No Marine Left Behind

CHAPTER SIXTEEN: Reckless Begins Her Journey

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: An Angel on Her Back

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN: Wounded in Action

CHAPTER NINETEEN: “A Symphony of Death”

CHAPTER TWENTY: Bravery Beyond Exhaustion

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE: Taking the Rest of Vegas

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: It Can’t Be Given Back

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: Snake Eyes

PART IV

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: Victory at Great Cost

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE: Pedersen Sells His Horse

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: Left Behind in Korea

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN: Return Reckless, or Destroy Her

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT: A Hero Horse Goes Home

EPILOGUE

AUTHOR’S NOTE ON SOURCES

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

INDEX

INSERT PHOTO

PROLOGUE

It looked to be a routine operation. The main attack would be on Bunker Hill that night, and to distract the Communist forces, units of the 5th Marine Regiment were to assault a hill named Siberia. The 2nd Battalion would lead it, accompanied by tanks and armored vehicles carrying high-powered flamethrowers. Even though his mission was to create a reasonably convincing diversion, Colonel Thomas A. Culhane Jr., the commanding officer of the 5th Marines, wasn’t taking any chances: He ordered a platoon from the 5th Anti-Tank Company to be part of it. The Chinese hated the recoilless rifles the platoon brought to the fight, and nothing pleased the colonel more than to make life hot and harrowing for the enemy.

Leading the recoilless rifles gun crews was one of the best officers in the regiment. Second Lieutenant Eric Pedersen had assumed command of the platoon in the spring. He was that increasingly rare animal on the front lines in Korea, a Marine who had seen action in World War II. After two years of replacements, most seasoned veterans from that war were back home safe in the States. Pedersen was soon to turn thirty-two, so he was not a gung-ho youngster, and he’d left a wife and two kids back in California. With a string pulled here or there, he could have gotten out of a trip across the Pacific Ocean, or at least have landed a cushy position well back behind the Main Line of Resistance—the series of trenches and defensive works controlled by United Nations forces that spanned the width of Korea near the 38th Parallel—where there were hot showers, hot meals, and movies with Jane Russell and Lauren Bacall.

But here Pedersen was, about to lead his platoon once more into battle. The lanky lieutenant resembled a professor more than a warrior. A slender, beetle-browed man, he had dark, contemplative eyes anchoring a face containing a full-sized, slightly pointed nose and a small mouth that pursed when he was in the midst of contemplation, such as mulling over the best position to place his guns. The way his large ears protruded from his close-cropped dark hair was a bit comical, but none of his men would dare snicker. Pedersen had seen more combat in two wars than all of them combined. They respected him as the finest kind of Marine platoon leader, an officer who wouldn’t let his men take any risks he wouldn’t take himself. After only a few months together with him, his men would follow him anywhere.

At dusk on that hot summer day, when even a flicked cigarette raised a cloud of dust, the gun crews and guys carrying ammunition were following Lieutenant Pedersen across the thousand yards that separated the relative safety of the MLR from the preselected positions on the hills that looked out at Siberia. On United Nations maps it was officially Hill 58A, a sentinel overlooking a long draw running down the east sides of Hills 120 and 122, part of the Bunker Hill ridge. Marines were already lying in the rocks across a short valley from Siberia, waiting for the jump-off signal. If the plan the 1st Marine Division staff had put together worked, the attack would cause such a commotion that the Communists would move men and equipment to Siberia from Bunker Hill, and the true assault would take care of those who had remained.

There was enough light left for Lieutenant Pedersen to have a good view of Siberia through his binoculars. He spaced his three gun crews well enough apart from each other that one hit from a mortar or artillery shell wouldn’t knock them all out. His gunnery sergeant, Joe Latham, another World War II combat veteran, went from one recoilless rifle to the next and back again, making sure they were secure on their tripods and that the tripods were dug solidly in the hard earth between the rocks of the hill. He wouldn’t allow any cowboys firing the gun while standing. It could be done, but the force of the back blast would send any normal Marine flying off the cliff. Well, there was Corporal Monroe Coleman, the strongest man in the outfit—he could possibly fire a recoilless rifle held in both arms, but having the weapon locked tight into a tripod best ensured accuracy.

Beside each gun was a pile of 75-mm shells, each one in a cardboard sleeve. Each recoilless rifle, at more than 100 pounds and almost seven feet long, was tough enough to haul up the hills on every mission the platoon undertook, but those shells weighed 24 pounds each and were an unwieldy two feet long—meaning that a Marine could carry just two of them, one on each shoulder. Coleman, a tall and sturdy young man from Utah, was the only one who could do three, the third shell resting on the back of his neck, wedged between the other two shells. Lieutenant Pedersen had already sent men, including Coleman, back down to the forward ammunition depot for more shells. Getting caught short at the wrong time could mean dead Marines in the valley below.

Pedersen, his lips pursed, watched as the tanks and armored vehicles rolled out, the units of the 5th Regiment in their wake. Seconds later he heard the shrieks of artillery shells streaking overhead, and moments after that clouds of smoke and dirt mushroomed out of the sides of Siberia where the shells struck. The tiny figures of Marines closed in, firing their carbines and BARs as they ran toward the target. Pedersen gave the command and his gun crews joined in, the thrusting back blasts of the recoilless rifles spewing smoke and stones across the flat table of their position. It may have been only a diversionary assault, but it was a damn good show.

Too good, as it turned out. The Chinese forces overreacted. The Marines had sold the distraction so well that the enemy believed it was the real thing. Reinforcements rushed off the Bunker Hill ridge positions toward Siberia. That was the good news. The bad news was that more reinforcements were streaming in from other enemy positions. Within minutes, the Marines on the ground were badly outnumbered and at risk of being surrounded and cut off.

Instead of being able to provide support, the flamethrower vehicles had to pull back lest they fall to the onrushing enemy. Same for the tanks, though they could still provide covering fire. The artillery barrage by the 11th Regiment batteries behind the MLR had to be halted lest the shells fall on friend as well as foe. Pedersen held his breath, watching through binoculars as desperate officers rallied their men to fight a rearguard action while hustling back across the valley. Every few seconds the ground erupted when an exploding mortar shell tossed gritty soil and even bodies into the air. He could hear screaming—or maybe he just thought he did, having heard the agonized cries too many times before.

“We gotta light it up, boys!” Pedersen shouted to his gun crews.

He himself had the best vantage point, being able to see the Chinese positions and attackers as well as the pockets of retreating Marines. Calmly, but loud enough to be heard, the lieutenant gave coordinates, and each recoilless rifle in turn fired, sending off the 24-pound shells. The nickname for the rifles was “reckless” because one had to be reckless to be firing a gun from exposed positions on hillsides. But the guns were often very effective, and now they were firing purposefully, with pinpoint accuracy. They struck enemy troops on the ground, killing clusters of them, and turned mortars and their crews into broken shards of metal and flesh. The devastating fire from Pedersen’s platoon passed right over the heads of the Marines, whose chances of survival had just dramatically improved.

As long as the supply of shells held out. Coleman and the other men he had sent for more had already returned, dropped off their loads, and, despite breathing heavily and sweating profusely, immediately set off again. Sergeant Latham estimated that they would not make it to the depot and back in time, no matter how fast they ran. Even the best-conditioned of them would be too slow and carry too few of the precious shells.

But the platoon couldn’t quit firing. The destruction issuing from the recoilless rifles kept on, the barrels smoking hot in the cooling air of the evening. Darkness was their enemy too. The lieutenant could direct fire only as long as he could see enemy troops and positions.

Suddenly Pedersen was on his back. Probably a mortar shell had landed nearby. If it had been an artillery shell, he’d already be strumming a harp. He sat up and shook the dirt out of his eyes. A quick glance told him no one else was hurt. It could’ve been a lucky shot, or a Chinese gun crew had spotted the large back blasts of the recoilless rifles and was targeting them. No matter, the platoon couldn’t spare the time to find another position. They had to duke it out until one side won.

The lieutenant staggered to his feet. For a few moments he felt so sick and weak he almost pitched forward onto his face. He was bleeding. He could feel warm blood on his cheek, and he could see that pieces of hot shrapnel had pierced his hip and left leg. Large, strong hands grabbed his shoulders.

“Sir, you need a corpsman.”

“Not yet, Joe.” Pedersen’s vision sharpened and he felt more energy leaking back in than blood leaking out. He told Latham, “Let’s give ’em everything we’ve got left.”

The god of war had a sense of humor, all right: It was immediately after one of the recoilless rifles spewed the last shell and just before darkness obscured everything in the valley that Pedersen saw the Marines below reach the safety of the rocks, where a fresh platoon waited, now free to lay down a murderous fire of small arms and mortars, accompanied by the tanks that finally had an open field to fire into. Chinese troops fell like bowling pins. The slaughter became so senseless that even their usually merciless Communist commissars allowed them to retreat.

Lieutenant Pedersen couldn’t walk too well on the way back down to the 5th Marines position, so he allowed Coleman to wrap a thick arm around his waist and half carry him. The corporal deposited him in a regimental medical tent. There was nothing to do but wait, as the corpsmen first had to tend to the men who were wounded a lot worse than he was. While Pedersen was waiting, he felt lucky. It wasn’t about not being hurt more seriously; it was that the supply of shells had lasted just long enough. Next time, if he and his men weren’t so lucky, Marines would die—maybe a lot of them.

It was that hot August night, as he idly heard the sounds of the fight still going on at Bunker Hill, that Pedersen first had the idea of finding a horse.

PART I

CHAPTER ONE

If that Chinese mortar shell had landed a couple of feet closer, not only would the Marine Corps have had one less lieutenant, but no one would have ended up hearing about Sergeant Reckless. Two months after the diversionary attack on Siberia, Lieutenant Eric Pedersen prepared to see Colonel Eustace P. Smoak, the new commanding officer of the 5th Marines. That visit and its outcome would begin the journey that would result in Reckless becoming America’s own true warhorse.

But the story of that heroic horse could not have become known without her fellow Marines. Pedersen, sure, but there were others too, especially those who fought for their country and their Corps, for whom Semper Fidelis was not just a motto but a way of life. This is their story too, and Reckless, who became the four-legged symbol of “always faithful,” would not want it any other way. As much as she was their horse, these Marines of the 5th Regiment were her brothers.

Pedersen was known for caring about his men, and his sergeants—Ralph Sherman, Elmer Lively, John Lisenby, Willard Berry, and the affable Joe Latham, who at thirty-five was the “grandpa” of the platoon—as well as his corporals and privates thought he was as fine a platoon commanding officer as there was in the 1st Marine Division. That was most of what they knew about their lieutenant. But Pedersen actually had a pretty remarkable lineage, and it was no surprise he was a military man.

His father, John Pedersen, had been hailed as “the greatest gun designer in the world” by another famed gun designer, John Moses Browning. The Pedersens owned ranches in several Plains states and John had been born on the one in Grand Island, Nebraska, in May 1881. Little is known about his early life.

That is not true of the woman he married, Reata Canady, in 1918. She was born in Texas to a Scotsman who built railroads in China. He disappeared there, most likely the victim of a robbery of his crew’s payroll. Reata became a violinist, a protégé of Sir Thomas Lipton in England, then a registered nurse at Victoria Hospital. She worked in a field hospital in Belgium during World War I. A German shell hit it as surgery on a wounded soldier was being performed, and Reata covered him with her body to protect his wounds. Both had to be pulled from the rubble. She received a decoration from the British government, and this brought her to the attention of the magazine illustrator P. G. Morgan, who used Reata as a model for now-famous oil paintings of a Red Cross nurse in battlefield conditions.

After the war she became a writer, using the pen name Reata Van Houten. She wrote short stories and articles published by various magazines. She would go on to write pieces on fly-fishing for Field & Stream and she had her own program, The Hostess of the Air, on NBC Radio. Somehow Reata found time to marry John Pedersen and give birth to two children, Eric and Kristi-Ray, who grew up in homes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Southern California. The marriage did not last, however. Reata later went back to work as a nurse in San Diego, where she died in 1969 at age eighty-five.

John Pedersen’s first achievement in the gun business came in 1918 when he invented a device that converted a Springfield 1903 rifle into a semiautomatic, intermediate-caliber firearm. These were mass-produced and shipped off to the Americans fighting in France. After the war, Pedersen designed sporting guns for Remington and collaborated with Browning to create the Model 17 pump-action shotgun, which after redesigns became the Remington Model 31, the Browning BPS, and the Ithaca 37. In all, Pedersen was issued sixty-nine patents for his firearm designs, but because of several business snafus, including during World War II, he was not nearly as successful as he could have been. Pedersen remarried at sixty-five, his new wife being thirty-two; he died five years later, in May 1951, of a coronary while traveling in Arizona.

By that time his son was a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps and a year away from heading for service in Korea. In the fall of 1952, Lieutenant Eric Pedersen and his regiment had been tested not only by battle but also by the wearying, unsanitary, and sometimes downright disgusting conditions of the bunkers that dotted the hills of the so-called Outpost War.

•   •   •

Despite his somewhat prissy name, Colonel Eustace P. Smoak was a tough Marine even among tough Marines and could easily make lowly lieutenants quiver. He had seen plenty of action against the Japanese in the Pacific, and more of the same here in Korea. During the previous war he had particularly distinguished himself while leading attacks against Japanese positions in the Battle of Coconut Grove on Bougainville in 1943. The suggestion that one of his officers wanted to go off hunting for a horse might be greeted with a growl that Pedersen should have his head examined.

The way this war was going, a lot of people should have had their heads examined. Too many times in the intervening years, the Korean conflict has been referred to as the “forgotten war.” Forgotten, unfortunately, was that it was a brutal, nasty, and lengthy one. Some of the fighting there achieved the intensity of such legendary Pacific Theater battles as Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima in which the U.S. Marines prevailed at great cost. The Korean War was certainly not forgotten by the men who fought in it and their families.

However, it is true that after the first year or so of fighting, there was not a lot reported to the American public to remember or forget. A comparison of New York Times headlines, for example, from World War II and from the Korean War indicates that the press and by extension the public had much less interest in events in an undeclared war taking place in a country only the size of Florida on the other side of the world. Plus, it was being waged against the armies of Mao Zedong, who was still relatively unknown and not a full-blown villain like Mussolini, Stalin, Tojo, and Hitler.

The Korean War in American history does not have the epic sweep of the Civil War or World War II, both of which lasted four years and reported staggering body counts. The Korean “police action,” as President Harry Truman labeled it, lasted only one year less. By October 1952, the fighting had been going on for twenty-eight months. The Korean War would last a total of three years and one month, and tens of thousands of telegrams expressing sorrow would be sent by the War Department back to the States. Those families have not forgotten.

The combat historian Brigadier General S. L. A. “Slam” Marshall, who would know, referred to Korea as “the century’s nastiest little war.” The only thing to disagree with is his use of the word “little.” More than 1.3 million Americans served during the war in that windswept gallbladder of a country. By the time of the signing of the truce in July 1953, 54,246 were dead (33,652 killed in action), 103,284 were wounded, 3,746 were taken by the enemy as prisoners, and 8,196 were missing in action, for a total of 169,472. The South Korean Army had more than 800,000 killed and wounded. The enemy suffered an even greater toll, with an estimated 1.5 million casualties, 900,000 of them Chinese Communists.

Another major difference was the slow, dismal grind of the Korean conflict. World War II, for the United States, began with the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and ended with the Japanese surrender in August 1945. In between, in both Europe and the Pacific, there was one dramatic battle after another, among them Midway, Guadalcanal, Anzio, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, Hitler’s suicide, Germany’s surrender, and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, followed quickly by its surrender. In Korea, the dramatic battles that inspired the boldest headlines were in the first year—especially the Inchon landing and the Chosin Reservoir campaign—and interest waned after the firing and return to the United States of the swaggering General Douglas MacArthur. His “old soldiers never die, they just fade away” speech to Congress in April 1951, days after he was axed, was his dramatic final act and for many Americans the last truly interesting event of the war.

With the supreme commander of the United Nations forces gone—MacArthur was replaced by the less volatile, and less insubordinate, General Matthew Ridgway—the pace of the Korean conflict slowed to a monotonous, though still deadly, crawl. The events of 1950 had been like the epic battles of Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson, each stone-fisted slug seeming to signal sure victory for one or the other. Those blood-filled brawls gave way in 1951 to a grind-it-out sparring match featuring two scarred warriors hoping one would wear down and throw in the towel before his opponent did. It dawned on many if not most officers and soldiers in the field that there would be no knockout blows; instead, there would be feints and some stumbling footwork and an accumulation of points recorded by increasingly disinterested judges and audience.

“The commanders of both armies were largely without illusions—though some illusions might still remain among the political figures above them,” wrote David Halberstam. “But from then on it became a grinding war. ‘I want you,’ Ridgway told a group of Marine officers about that time, ‘to bleed Red China white.’ It became a war of cruel, costly battles, of few breakthroughs, and of strategies designed to inflict maximum punishment on the other side without essentially changing the battle lines. In the end, there would be no great victory for anyone, only some kind of mutually unsatisfactory compromise.”

James Brady, who would go on to fame as a writer and editor, arrived in Korea as a wide-eyed Marine lieutenant on Thanksgiving weekend in 1951. He served as a platoon leader, and when he left the country the following year he did so with both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. “In some ways, it wasn’t a modern war at all, more like Flanders or the Somme or even the Wilderness campaign” was how he sized up the situation. “There were jets and tanks and warships but you didn’t see them very often. Korea was fought mostly by infantrymen with M-1 rifles and machine guns and hand grenades and mortars. There was artillery, of course, quite good on both sides. And barbed wire, lots of that, and mines, always the mines. We lived under the ground, in sandbagged bunkers, and stood watch in trenches. Men who fought in France in 1917 would have understood Korea; Lee’s and Grant’s men would have recognized it.”

•   •   •

Armistice talks had begun in July 1951 at the ancient Korean capital of Kaesong, and those desultory discussions were later moved to Panmunjom, which lay on the 38th Parallel. Whenever there appeared to be some progress, a monkey wrench was tossed into the works. So into 1952 the “grinding war” continued and no one knew how to end it. The war had settled into unbearable, unwinnable battles. There were no more victories, only more death. Both sides wanted to get out, but neither side seemed to have the sense or the willingness to compromise to do so. By mid-1952, the war was ongoing trench warfare, days and nights of living under constant artillery barrages, men caught in the wrong place at the wrong time with not much meaning or satisfaction to be gained from the fighting and dying.

The sarcasm among rank-and-file Marines in 1952 was that they were “dying for a tie.” During the last sixteen months of the war, often described as a “stalemate,” the Marines averaged twenty-seven casualties a day and more than a hundred dead every month after frustrating month.

There was a lot of courage but little glory to be found in such merciless and squalid surroundings. A hill might be little more than a compilation of mounds of rock-strewn dirt or resemble a small mountain. Most were rugged, steep natural structures containing ridges and gullies and separated by valleys that were often veined by a stream or river. Two hills less than fifty yards apart could belong to opposite forces, though most distances between United Nations and Communist troops were measured in hundreds of yards. The majority of the U.N. troops were U.S. Army and Marine Corps soldiers, who were flanked and supported by South Korean, British, Australian, French, Greek, and even Turkish units.

The Marines were strangers to this kind of reluctant, primarily defensive warfare. During World War II the mission of the Marines, with few exceptions, was to attack and advance and attack again as they carried out the island-hopping strategy. That strategy was often credited to Admirals Chester Nimitz and Ernest King. However, in 1921, Lieutenant Colonel Earl Hancock Ellis of the U.S. Marine Corps drafted “Plan 712, Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia,” a plan for war against Japan that first discussed such a strategy. By the time of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. War Department not only had that plan to implement but could refer to Japan’s own aggressive strategy that allowed it to conquer much of the Pacific Theater.

In any case, the American strategy throughout the war in that theater from the victory at Midway on had been to capture islands as they fought their way west toward the Japanese homeland. During the first year of the Korean War the combined U.N. forces under the command of General MacArthur battled to gain large swaths of territory as they pushed the North Koreans toward the Yalu River, the border with China. Even in December 1950, as the nearly surrounded elements of the 5th Marines and 7th Marines headed south from the Chosin Reservoir, General Oliver Smith adamantly denied that his troops were retreating, insisting, “We’re just fighting in a different direction.”

But after that, the war devolved into a much different story. Without enthusiasm, the Marines had to become accustomed to a strategy of digging in and defending positions for an indefinite length of time. That was their mission well into 1952, and as always, they would follow the orders of their commanding officers.

Each side played a chess game. During the daylight hours, the U.N. forces moved their pieces forward, occupying the hills and slopes in front of what was called the Main Line of Resistance. (More specifically, the portion of the MLR in western Korea defended by the Marines was called the Jamestown Line.) When the sun went down, those forces hunkered down or moved backward and the Chinese moved their pawns ahead. It wasn’t that the Chinese had better night vision—they feared the airpower of the Americans and the Australians, which was particularly effective during daylight operations. Their MiGs did not match up well with the allies’ jets and experienced pilots, some of whom had mixed it up with Japanese Zeros in World War II.

Because of the firepower of the U.N. forces on the ground as well as in the air, Communist troops—overwhelmingly Chinese—relied on stealth, stamina, and intimidating numbers in offensive maneuvers. There was no question about the numbers part of the equation. It was estimated by U.N. commanders that there were forty Chinese divisions, some one million troops, north of the allied positions, complemented by what remained of the North Korean divisions, probably fewer than 50,000 men. The Chinese superiority in numbers did not mean that their ranks were stuffed with raw recruits, failed file clerks, and terrified teenagers. Communist commanders could still count on—among the estimated ten million men in the military—battle-hardened veterans who had defeated Chiang’s better-equipped forces, some of whom even dated back to the early days of Mao’s revolution and the Long March of 1934.

If only the Chinese had been able to combine superior numbers with smart battlefield tactics, the war might have been over at least a year earlier. The rigidity of the Chinese military was such that field officers from majors on down did not have the authority to change orders during battle. Too often, this resulted in paralyzed commanders unable to prevent the carnage of waves of their men being killed in attacks or other maneuvers that the day before and on paper had looked like winning strategies.

What could also be considered a disadvantage was the blatant disdain the Chinese had for American soldiers. The commissars and commanders apparently ignored the historical fact that a shortcut to defeat is to underestimate your enemy. In a document that had been captured earlier in the war, an enemy writer ranted, referring specifically to U.S. Marines, “We will destroy them. When they are defeated the Americans will collapse and our country will be free from the threat of aggression. Kill these Marines as you would snakes in your homes!”

Dug in on the other side of the Main Line of Resistance were those snakes and their allies: five army divisions, a British division, and an assortment of units from other countries. Anchoring the U.N. defense, however unenthusiastically, was the 1st Marine Division. Given what it had endured and accomplished in World War II and its experiences thus far in Korea, the division, fondly known as the Old Breed, was arguably the toughest division of fighting men any war had seen.

Though both adversaries were subjected equally to the terrible conditions of the freezing Korean winters with the wind blowing south out of Siberia, allied soldiers had a slight advantage during those months beyond having sturdier clothing. Every Chinese soldier wore a flexible two-piece reversible uniform of quilted cotton, a fur-lined cap with thick earflaps, and canvas shoes with crepe soles. Marines learned to listen for the scritch-scritch sound of what they called tennis shoes on the snow, indicating the enemy’s approach. Their sense of smell came in handy too. Garlic had been a traditional cold remedy in Asia for centuries, and Chinese units had a telltale odor that could be detected hundreds of yards away. This was an even better equalizer in the warm-weather months when the tennis shoes were silent.

To say that conditions for the Marines on and around the hills of the Jamestown Line were “squalid” was often an understatement. “There were times when it was just plumb miserable,” recalled Jim Cullom, who in 1952 was a twenty-three-year-old veteran of World War II. The former University of California football and rugby star’s nickname was “Truck.” He was a second lieutenant, and when he was assigned to lead a machine-gun and rifle platoon consisting of men from Easy and Fox Companies, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, there were only eight men left in a unit that should have had a full complement of forty-four men.

“We lived in filthy, rat-infested holes in the ground,” said Don Johnson, a member of Fox Company, 2nd Battalion of the 5th Regiment. “Our only hot meals were C-rations heated over Sterno cans. The latrine was so far away, we did our business in C-ration boxes and threw them over the top of the trenches. We didn’t shower, shave, and rarely brushed our teeth. At night we were shelled, probed, and forced to listen to Chinese propaganda broadcasts.”

Lieutenant Cullom developed a grudging respect for the enemy: “They were very, very tough from the standpoint that they could tolerate a lot of things that I don’t think we could.”

They had to. They already had, given that when Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River in the fall of 1950 to join the war, they were only a year removed from ending the long struggle against Chiang Kai-shek. Mao Zedong and his chief lieutenant, Chou En-Lai, had sent Chiang and his forces into exile on Formosa (now Taiwan), and without much of a break their soldiers were fighting again, in possibly harsher conditions.

According to Johnson, “The Chinese soldier was not well equipped. His only protection against the cold was a padded suit—they didn’t believe in the layer system. His diet was dried rice and garlic cloves. They carried little sacks containing those two treats. They were bombarded daily, and could rarely stick their heads above the skyline without losing it. They were persistent. They had excellent mortar men.” He added: “They were not, however, any match for the Marines.”

CHAPTER TWO

The summer of 1952 saw more of the same tug-of-war activity, with the Chinese and U.N. forces grappling to take and defend hills and the outposts that had been dug into them. What had upped the ante a bit was a peace proposal that had been submitted to the Communist negotiators at Panmunjom on April 28. Essentially, that was the one accepted . . . though not until July 27, 1953, fifteen months later. But the possibility existed that third summer of the war that it could be agreed to any day. It was presumed that on that day each side would own what territory it possessed—south of the MLR would be South Korea, and north of it would be Communist North Korea. Thus, the most strategic and otherwise valuable pieces of property were being eyed with special interest.

Bunker Hill was prime real estate and had been coveted by the Chinese generals and eventually captured. At 660 feet high it offered an expansive view of the U.N. forces dug in along the MLR, especially the Marines directly in front of it. Technically, what was named Bunker Hill wasn’t a hill at all but a ridgeline that ran between Hill 122 in the north and Hill 124 at the southern end. Such subtle distinctions did not matter to the Chinese. Ownership of both hills and the ridgeline connecting them would provide a huge strategic advantage. For that very reason, the Marines could not afford to let the enemy keep it.

There was another reason to take that hill. Kicking the Chinese off Bunker Hill would give the U.N. negotiators more leverage and could hasten a truce. Of course, trying and failing would be embarrassing and allow the Chinese to gain the diplomatic advantage, but Marine commanders would not allow that sort of thinking. Thus, one of the most brutal battles of the war, the first major one fought in western Korea, began.

Though it almost turned into a disaster, on the evening of August 11 when Lieutenant Pedersen led his platoon, the diversionary attack did set the Chinese back on their crepe-covered heels. The tanks and flamethrowing vehicles had created surreal, cinematic scenes—frightening and deadly ones for the Chinese.

Once that assault had drained off enough enemy troops, portions of Baker Company of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, commanded by Captain Sereno Scranton, started up Bunker Hill. One platoon had made it to the ridgeline when the Chinese reacted with small-arms fire and hurled grenades. But more Marines made their way up the hill and the defenders began to give ground. By dawn, the Chinese had lost the top of Hill 122.

Marine reinforcements arrived bearing shovels, sandbags, and wire so that a defensive perimeter could be created. Early in the morning of August 12 there was a flare-up of firing by Chinese soldiers who clung to a section of the hill, but that was soon doused. Lieutenant Colonel Gerard Armitage and his 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marines were now responsible for holding on to Bunker Hill.

Maybe the Chinese had finally spilled enough blood on that particular hill—there was little action to speak of as morning turned to afternoon, allowing the Marines to further fortify their position. The quiet was shattered at 3 p.m. when enemy artillery opened fire. By then, the 3rd Battalion and supporting units, about 1,500 strong, occupied Bunker Hill. They provided a rude surprise for the 350 Chinese soldiers who an hour after the barrage emerged from the low ground and headed up toward the ridge. Even under murderous fire they kept coming, until finally their disregard for their own lives wilted.

Captain Bernard Peterson, a forward air controller, had observed much of the brutal battle and the impact on friend and foe alike. He would later write to his wife, “Oh honey, this is a horrible war—worse than anything I have ever imagined possible. Everyone is shook.”

During the late-afternoon lull, Major General John Taylor Selden, commanding officer of the 1st Marine Division, brought up reserve units and shifted other units because the entire defensive line was dangerously thin. The Marines on Bunker Hill were resupplied with mortars and machine guns. By 8 p.m., they were ready for whatever the enemy might bring.

As the Chinese had done countless times in the past two-plus years of fighting, they now decided that an attack in the middle of the night would be effective. They were right. An hour into August 13, the Marines came under mortar fire. Minutes later, enemy artillery resumed, blasting the hills and the ridge that constituted Bunker Hill. The artillery of the 11th Marine Regiment answered, and for four hours the American and Chinese positions were a murderous maelstrom as shells gouged hills and blasted humans apart. Every man and every weapon were involved. The prolonged attack was effective in piling up casualties on both sides, but ultimately it failed. Just before dawn, the enemy withdrew.

It had been a busy day for U.S. Navy corpsmen, who provided the immediate on-the-field care for the wounded. And a deadly day too. Hospitalman John Kilmer had enlisted in the Navy in 1947 in Houston when he was only seventeen. He reenlisted in August 1951, and a year later he was with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. During the height of the fighting on the night of August 13, Kilmer rushed from one wounded man to another, providing aid. He was exposed to small-arms fire and sniper fire, but mortar fragments got him first. Though seriously wounded, he continued his work, reaching another Marine who had been wounded. As his Medal of Honor citation read, “Undaunted by the devastating hostile fire, he skillfully administered first aid to his comrade and, as another mounting barrage of enemy fire shattered the immediate area, unhesitatingly shielded the wounded man with his body.” The Marine survived; Kilmer did not.

•   •   •

The Chinese were back at it before the day was done. At 9 that night, another bombardment of Bunker Hill began. The enemy ground attack that followed focused on the right and center positions of the 3rd Battalion. Once more they almost got through, but the Marines, primarily those in How Company, beat them back with the help of illuminating rounds launched by the artillery of the 11th Regiment. Still, the defensive line was again thinning, and the Chinese seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of men and shells.

During the next day and night the attacks on Bunker Hill were sporadic and not as intense. Maybe the reservoir of even the Chinese soldiers was beginning to run a bit dry. That hope was dashed very early on August 15 when the Chinese artillery opened up, raining bombs on Bunker Hill. It was estimated that during the next three hours, until about 4 a.m., the defensive positions absorbed up to a hundred rounds per minute. During this prolonged thunderstorm of metal, enemy troops probed and massed for a full-scale attack. Then the Americans got lucky. When an M46 Patton tank flicked on its searchlight, caught in the glare was a large group of Chinese soldiers. Artillery, mortar, and tank fire took many of them out. Preventing that attack may have saved Bunker Hill.

How could the situation become worse? A real thunderstorm, which struck on the afternoon of August 15. Bunker Hill turned to mud and the Marines on it were soaked to the skin. So were the Chinese, but that didn’t stop them from sending a company out for another attempt to take the hill. It took an hour to dissuade them. The next day was less than an hour old when the enemy tried again, this time with a battalion-strength force. They kept coming for more than two hours as Marines died in the deepening mud. At one point some enemy soldiers got through the defensive perimeter and Marines killed them with knives and bare hands. At 3:15 a.m., what was left of the Chinese battalion retreated.

•   •   •

Apparently, having come that close to capturing Bunker Hill after five days of furious fighting and not succeeding had demoralized the enemy. While they did not abandon their positions, there were no more attacks that matched those of August 11 to 15. The Chinese did not go on a hiatus—the relative inactivity at Bunker Hill meant that the enemy was devoting more resources and energy to attacks elsewhere on the Jamestown Line, often on the right side, which was manned by Colonel Thomas Culhane Jr. and his 5th Marine Regiment.

Capturing and keeping Bunker Hill was accomplished with forty-eight Marines sacrificing their lives and more than three hundred being seriously wounded. (According to Marine physicians, the total number of wounded topped one thousand.) It was estimated that there were close to three thousand total Chinese casualties.

Casualties meant a crushing caseload for the doctors at the makeshift surgical stations behind the defensive line, even days after the most intense fighting. “Saturday night came, and we’d been up for 36 hours without sleep,” reported Lieutenant Birney Dibble, who at that time was a surgeon in the Naval Reserve attached to the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marines.

By Sunday, August 17, Dr. Dibble and most of the other medical personnel had gone without sleep for forty-eight hours. Sikorskys and other helicopters arrived one after the other bearing those with the most serious torso injuries. When surgery was done, if there wasn’t room for a recovering Marine inside, he was brought out and laid gently on the hillside. As the weekend went on there were rows of men, who were checked regularly so the ones who died could be replaced with more of the ones coming out of surgery. They had to be brought water regularly too, because as Dr. Dibble noted, “It was hot, lying there in the sun, and we had to be sure the wounded weren’t getting dehydrated.”

As was true during and immediately after most of the battles in western Korea that year and for the rest of the war, the main surgical tent was a scene from hell. As sweat poured from their foreheads and chins, doctors hacked off arms and legs and pried open abdomens to stop the bleeding that was draining men’s lives away. Kidneys and spleens were removed. The only mercy for the patients was unconsciousness; for the surgeons and nurses it was not having time to think about what they were doing.

Dr. Dibble concluded, “The Marines will never forget Bunker Hill, and neither will we, the doctors and corpsmen who were there on the other end of the pipeline from that bloody hill.”

•   •   •

During the next few weeks the Chinese fired mortars at Bunker Hill from time to time, and there were occasional machine-gun bursts and tossed grenades. Robert Simanek, a twenty-two-year-old from Detroit, threw himself on one of them. Fox Company of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, had sent out a patrol, and PFC Simanek was part of it. The Marines ran into a trap. When a grenade fell among them, Simanek sacrificed himself. The explosion severely wounded his legs, but miraculously, he survived. On October 27 of the following year at a White House ceremony, Simanek became the thirty-sixth Marine to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions in the Korean War.

There was no large-scale coordinated effort against Bunker Hill other than the one from the night of August 25 to August 26, when an assault was repelled. However, smaller attacks could be deadly too. At 1 a.m. on September 5, the Chinese launched mortar shells and soldiers rushed up the hill. They were met by small-weapons fire from the Marines who had survived the mortar onslaught.

Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, took the brunt of this attack. During it, Edward Clyde Benfold, of Staten Island, New York, sacrificed his life to save others. Only twenty-one years old, Benfold was a Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class. Even though he was exposed to intense mortar and burp gun fire, Benfold moved among the Easy soldiers, treating the wounded. At the height of the action, he spotted two wounded Marines in a crater created by an artillery shell. As he went to treat them, advancing enemy troops hurled two grenades into the crater. Benfold grabbed the grenades, leaped out of the crater, and threw himself at the enemy soldiers, who were killed when the grenades detonated. The courageous corpsman was mortally wounded; he received a posthumous Medal of Honor.

Another Medal of Honor was awarded for heroism during this same battle to hold Bunker Hill. PFC Alford McLaughlin, who had joined the Marines right out of high school in 1945, had already earned a Purple Heart the previous month, and on September 4 he was back on the line with his I Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. After midnight, as the Chinese blew whistles and bugles and attacked up the hill, McLaughlin stood his ground, shooting two machine guns from the hip until his hands blistered from the overheating guns. He put them aside to cool and withstood the enemy by firing a carbine and hurling grenades, even after being wounded.

To rally his fellow Marines, the twenty-four-year-old from Alabama stood in full view as he took up the machine guns again and sprayed the hill, felling the Chinese as if he wielded a scythe. By the time the decimated enemy broke off the attack, McLaughlin had accounted for well over a hundred dead and wounded. He became one of the few Medal of Honor winners in Korea to live long enough to receive it. McLaughlin would serve as a Marine for another twenty-five years before retiring as a master sergeant.

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